Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Two races for Los Angeles Unified school board are too close to call

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Los Angeles school board President Kelly Gonez is in a surprisingly tight contest with challenger Marvin Rodriguez for a Board of Education seat representing the east San Fernando Valley. In a second board contest — to represent downtown and the Eastside — Maria Brenes holds a small lead over Rocio Rivas.

Mail-in ballots are still arriving and votes remain to be counted. But in incomplete returns for District 6 in the East Valley, Gonez had 50.3% of the tallied votes and Rodriguez 49.7%.

In District 2, Brenes had 50.8% of the vote and Rivas 49.2%. The next count update is set for Friday.

L.A. school board candida Marvin Rodriguez

L.A. school board candidate Marvin Rodriguez

The narrow margin between Gonez, 34, and Cleveland High School Spanish teacher Rodriguez, 43, was unexpected, given the Gonez campaign’s enormous funding advantage — her own $500,000 war chest and more than $450,000 in independent spending on her behalf. Rodriguez had raised just over $11,000, which included $6,000 he loaned to his campaign.

Gonez also had engineered the relatively rare feat of winning backing both from the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and from backers of charter schools. Also supporting her candidacy was Local 99 of Service Employees International, which represents the school system’s cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians and teacher aides, and sent more than 320 volunteers knocking on doors on behalf of Brenes and Gonez.

First elected in 2017, Gonez was instrumental in the recent hiring of longtime Miami Supt. Alberto Carvalho to lead L.A. Unified. She nearly won reelection outright in the June primary.

But many of her backers put in less effort than they did in the Rivas/Brenes race — perhaps because an easy Gonez victory was presumed. The teachers union pumped no significant money into her campaign, and other supporters poured more funds into the other contest.

Rodriguez drew support from members of a large teachers-union-friendly Facebook site and two parent groups — California Students Union and United Parents Los Angeles — whose followers are sharply critical of the teachers union and the district’s lengthy school closures and other safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many of our [East Valley] families were very frustrated with Kelly Gonez over prolonged school closures, strict mitigation, her support of defunding school police and overall lack of community engagement,” said Christie Pesicka, a leader within the parent groups.

Those who know Rodriguez like him, said supporter Evelyn Aleman, a public-relations professional and community organizer among Spanish-speaking families.

“I know his work ethic and support for his students,” said Aleman, who had no role in the campaign. “He taught both my daughters and was an excellent, devoted teacher, who also led extracurricular activities for kids.”

In contrast, the close tallies between Brenes, 46, and Rivas, 49, to replace termed-out board president Monica Garcia came as no surprise — even though Rivas finished first by 14 percentage points in the June primary field of four.

The teachers union backed Rivas, a senior aide to board member Jackie Goldberg, spending close to $2.9 million on her behalf. Rivas spoke assertively of wanting to curtail the growth, influence and independence of charters whenever possible, although state law protects many of their prerogatives.

Brenes, the head of the community group InnerCity Struggle, raised far more money than Rivas and also benefited from more than $5.1 million in independent spending, mostly from Local 99 and the political action committee under the control of retired businessman Bill Bloomfield and Netflix founder Reed Hastings, a charter-school backer.

Charter schools are privately operated, mostly nonunion public schools that can share public campuses and are publicly funded.

All four candidates pledged to address a dizzying array of challenges — declining enrollment, teen drug abuse, school security concerns, pandemic setbacks and wide achievement gaps affecting Black and Latino students.

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